Report from Lourdes

The members of Order of Malta, or at least its American branches, concluded their annual one-week pilgrimage to Lourdes yesterday, and your intrepid Jesuit reporter was among them. As in the past few years, I was as a guest of (and chaplain for) the "Federal Association" of the Order, which makes its home in Washington, D.C., but which draws its membership from even farther afield. Accordingly I shared Masses, Marian Processions and meals with a diverse and accomplished group of men and women from Maryland and Virginia, to be sure, but also from Texas, Georgia, and Florida. This year is also a "Jubilee Year" in Lourdes, marking the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous, a young girl living in squalor in the small town in Southern France. Signs of the Jubilee were everywhere--mainly in the gargantuan number of people. Yet despite the massive crowds, life in Lourdes was, as always, cheerful, calm and well organized. (Compare that to my first sight of Penn Station in New York yesterday afternoon, where, despite far fewer numbers, people seemed much grumpier, and your appreciation for what happens in Lourdes deepens considerably.) Lourdes is a marvelous mix of pomp and simplicity. For the former, there are few places outside Rome that can match the pageantry of the Pontifical Masses celebrated in the vast underground concrete church (excuse me, The Basilica of St. Pius X). That worship space, the site of the largest Masses in town, is saved from looking like a 1960s-era parking lot only by the immense banners with pictures of saints from around the world. (I seem to forever find myself seated under one of St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei.) Besides 25,000 pilgrims (yes, you read that number correctly) and hundreds of priests and deacons, the assembled hierarchs included Cardinals Pio Laghi and Roger Mahony, not to mention Archbishops George Niederauer of San Francisco and Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, and Bishops William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., William Murphy of Rockville Center, N.Y., and Michael Cote of Norwich, Conn. Other prelates, despite the long list of the episcopal personages on the handy program, remained somewhat mysterious to me. Where are John Allen, Rocco Palmo and Dave Gibson when you need them? I could have used one or all three of them after I walked up to a bishop and complimented him on his lovely homily, only to find out later that he hadn’t spoken at the Mass at all! (Fortunately, he spoke little English and so gleefully accepted my words of praise.) At Sunday’s Mass, Fra Matthew Festing, the Order’s new Grand Master, offered the prayer of the Order of Malta, in Latin, and though the good-natured Englishman confessed that his command of the language was no better than that of an "idle schoolboy," it sounded good to me. Speaking of language proficiency, while my French miraculously returns each year in Lourdes, my Latin did not, for the simple reason that I don’t know any. Nonetheless I celebrated (or rather, concelebrated) my very first Latin Mass (the "Novus Ordo") last week in Lourdes, which is a fine place to ring in the old. Another Jesuit, Brian Frain, and I were pulling one of the "malades" into the underground basilica, got stuck in the crowd, and ended up at the tail end of the procession. Ironically, there were a few extra seats in the first row, and I was politely pulled up front into the very first seat. (Yes, the last was truly first.) The priest behind me laughed and muttered, "I hope you know your Latin, because you’ll probably be brought up onto the altar." Which I was. Fortunately, all the official liturigies in Lourdes in Lourdes are astonishingly well organized, and the French m.c. silently handed me a little Mass booklet, so that when Pio Laghi peered at me over the stone altar, I could look like I knew what I was doing. As in the rest of the Catholic church, in Lourdes the personal makes its home alongside the public, and the powerful rubs up against the powerless (though who is who is always a good question). At the center are those whom Bishop William Curlin, retired bishop of Charlotte, N.C. always calls "our beloved malades." (The term, which means the "sick person," is not pejorative in Lourdes.) On our pilgrimage this year I met dozens of malades, their families and friends, as well as the Knights and Dames of Malta, who were there to help accompany the malades to the "baths," push their carts so that they could get a good spot in the Grotto during Mass, fetch them a drink of water, make sure that they got their coffee and croissants in the morning, and, most of all, pray with them. To mark this year’s Jubilee, Pope Benedict XVI issued the granting of a "plenary indulgence" for those who, while in Lourdes, visited four sites: first, the Grotto at Massabielle; second, Bernadette’s home at the time of the apparitions (called the "Cachot," after the French word for "jail," which is what the place served as before the Soubirous family took up residence); third, the church of her baptism; and fourth, the "hospice" where she made her first Communion. This two-hour-long pilgrimage (along with confession) seemed, while arduous, more than worth the complete remission of punishment for my sins. It was the object of some humor that the sole street that the town seems to have chosen to repair this year is the one leading to the Cachot. This meant not only that the helpful white line painted along the streets to enable pilgrims to find their way simply stopped, but also that wheelchairs and carts would find it hard to make their way to one of the central spots of worship in the town. "Gee," said a friend, "why didn’t they repave the Grotto while they were at it?" My own plenary pilgrimage was completed on a hot day, and I felt happy when I finally received the last of four stickers to affix to the little blue paper disk that I had been given by an official in the Sanctuary. (I imagined presenting my little disk to God when I got to heaven, saying, "Does you accept these here?") The next day at Mass, though, we all received an indulgence, courtesy of the Bishop of Tarbes, Jacques Perrier. Which made many of us wonder what we would do with two plenary indulgences. The answer from a Jesuit friend, Jim Mattaliano: offer one to a deceased person. This I did, for my father. The best part of the trip? That’s easy: being with the generous Knights and Dames, the tireless volunteers and companions, and especially the hopeful malades. Each of the malades comes to Lourdes for different reasons and were at different places with their illnesses. (This year I heard anger for the first time, which struck me as bracingly honest and real). But all were hoping for some sort of healing---physical, emotional or spiritual. With all the good humor and faith of the malades, it’s sometimes easy for me to forget the deep emotions that lay just underneath the surface, but conversations can quickly turn serious over breakfast, lunch or dinner, or while you’re waiting in line for a bath. Tears come quickly at Lourdes and flow as fast as the Gave River, which runs silently past the Grotto. Spiritual healings come frequently at Lourdes, but after I returne people always ask me about the physical ones. So: any miracles? Yes, though maybe not as dramatic as the 66 authenticated ones. For example: One man in our group had suffered from the injuries that occurred during the first Gulf War, and, as a guest of the Order of Malta, had come to Lourdes seeking healing. His eyesight, never good, had deteriorated since being injured. As he told me while we were waiting in line for the baths, as soon as he landed in Lourdes his eyesight somehow seemed to get even worse. Someone suggested he take off his eyeglasses to let his eyes rest. A few minutes later, he told me, he could see perfectly well. "Look," he said, "I can read your nametag from here." And he did, from a few feet away. "I haven’t been able to see that well for 25 years!" What do you make of that? Well, as one character says in "The Song of Bernadette," for those without faith no explanation is possible; for those with faith no explanation is necessary. James Martin, SJ
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12 years 8 months ago
Father Martin has certainly hit the high spots of our recent pilgrimage to Lourdes. Our new Grand Master is delightfully British and has a sense of humor to match. He gave a remarkable talk to all of the Knights assembled in the church of St. Bernadette on the second night of our stay at Lourdes. One thing that strikes every visitor to Lourdes is the kindness and happiness of the visitors - remarked by Father Martin and Fra Festing alike. Christianity is a happy Faith and it is a joy to see its manifestation at Mary's shrine at Lourdes. The annual pilgrimage benefits our Association here in Monaco in uniting us to our brothers and sisters in the Order throughout the world in their task of assisting the sick.
12 years 8 months ago
Fr. Martin-- What a beautiful reflection on your recent pilgrimage! As a Catholic whom many would peg as 'conservative' (not sure those labels do any good), I'm very appreciative of your coverage in the NY Times of the Holy Father's apostolic visit to the US, as well as this piece. God bless!
12 years 8 months ago
Fr. Martin, We met briefly when I was part of Six Weeks a Jesuit back in 1996 (and wrote an article for America in the Sept or Oct 96 issue called "A Jesuit for Six Weeks"). I am now a lawyer living and working in London, UK and have followed your writings in America and the NYT. I just read your blog on Lourdes. I will be visiting Lourdes for the 3rd time in my life hopefully this August, and I must say that it is still one of those places that sustains the spirit and, wonderfully, reminds Catholics of the catholicity (that is, universality) of their Church. Thank you for putting your eloquent thoughts online; I always look forward to reading more from you!

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